Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Avoiding the bends
Apropos of recent discussions on transnational history, here is an interesting article on the subject by Pierre-Yves Saunier of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Saunier is editor, along with Akira Iriye, of The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, due to appear in 2008. He strikes exactly the right note, I think, in the opening paragraphs of his article, which reports on a conference on transnational history held in Australia a couple of years ago:
The conference, which provided the basis for this review, was an exciting one. While it took place in Canberra (Australia) in September 2004, many of us participants had this euphorising feeling that we were taking part [in] some kind of ‘first’, and that we were able to contribute to shape a yet unmoulded historiographical pattern at a moment when historians begin to embrace a pattern that has been flourishing in other disciplines. That is, indeed, a pleasant feeling to explore dimensions and perspectives without having to care too much for definitions, to venture care freely into fields and questions without respecting our respective subdisciplinary overspecialisations and to breathe the air of debate and discussion without being too much concerned by canons and the usual apparatus of our disciplined behaviours. As divers know, though, euphoria can also be dangerous: historical staggers can lead to a loss of balance and bearings. The most tempting of all those is probably to dismiss comparative, local, world or national histories as obsolete, and to build the fate or transnational history as the good side in a series of dichotomies (up to date/out of date, transnational/local, universal/parochial, relevant/irrelevant). This report, which does not escape those risks, nevertheless proposes some decompression stages to control some of them. Mostly, it will try to put this conference in context, by offering some links to the various proposals that, in different parts of the world, have made similar moves in the direction of a transnational perspective in history.Saunier also argues later in the piece that transnational history, despite the sometimes sweeping pronouncements of its founding manifestoes, actually encourages (in practice) a reflective kind of epistemic humility:
It is on purpose that the words of ‘a transnational perspective in history’ have just been used. It would have been easier to write ‘in the direction of a transnational history’. But it is not the orientation of this report to suggest that something called ‘transnational history’ should be the next big thing, something that would deserve to be presented as a new paradigm which destiny it is to overturn previous frameworks, an up and coming sub-discipline that would deserve its own institutional space. Rather, it is suggested here that ‘going transnational’ is about adopting a perspective, an angle. Going transnational is not moving to a different field of study, shifting allegiances and references. Rather, it is something that many historians can do to find a way to respond [to] questions that lay unanswered on their working desks [for] a while.
... developing a transnational perspective also brings about a renewed humbleness, that which comes from the sheer sense that one is never able to assemble all the pieces, to pull all the strings, to build the complete line up of skills that are required. And after all, it is logistical common sense to realize that you won't be able to have the time, funding and energy to follow all the trails that are traceable from a transnational point of view. Thus the results of a transnational research may always have to do with a sense of failure and incompleteness: knowing about our limits should save us from disappointment, but also from the ego trips which sometimes push us historians to believe we have written the final and ultimate volume on a subject.Finally, Saunier makes a good point about the way that historiographical movements are shaped, unavoidably, by institutional and professional structures. Instead of denying that fact, it's best to be aware of it:
... it would be a loss if the transnational angle was developed at the exp[e]nse of the local, national, comparative or world history perspectives. For sure, I also know that the transnational angle will have to make a place of its own in the current institutional structures of history as a trade, a discipline and a market. We have learned enough from the history and sociology of science to know that scientific disputes are also about academic positions, grants, publication opportunities. They are also rooted in the social and cultural trajectories of the protagonists. It is quite unlikely we can escape this. But the history of the social sciences and humanities are also full of so-called 'turns' where the practical opponents to a so-called 'new approach' are forced out on weak scientific grounds, in an exaggerated mutual game of opposition and denigration. I am naive enough, though, to think that one can try to introduce a different perspective without playing the usual academic tricks. It can also be an interesting experience to propose to be different without wanting to be hegemonic.Read the whole thing.